Beginning a new project is always exciting. You’ve got ideas, you know how you’re going to execute them. You may not realise you’ve already made a mistake at this integral point. Depending on your style or musical experience, you may have a bias that limits what you’re making or how effectively you can make it. A simple decision that’s easy to get wrong: choosing your Digital Audio Workstation before you sit down to work.
Human beings are creatures of habit – artists, producers, and engineers are all guilty for seeking comfort over suitability. Sure you can get the job done on your favourite DAW, but what if you’re missing out on the potential efficiency or creative power of something else?
It may seem daunting to have to learn and master multiple workspaces and functions, but in reality, most DAW Graphic User Interfaces (GUIs) are pretty similar, and if you’re familiar with one you should be able to make your way around others quickly. In an effort to convince you to try something new, or even if you’re just getting started, here are some tips on the different DAWs out there.
By limiting yourself to just one DAW, you may be shooting yourself in the foot in terms of creative efficiency and potency. Here is a rundown on different DAWs and how they might suit your workflow.
The Industry Standard
Regardless of how you operate, if you’re on a commercial stage or are working in the professional sphere, you will need to know your way around Avid’s Pro Tools. Most sound engineers and producers will tell you Pro Tools is second to none for function and processing, and though entire degrees are taught on the program, it is easy to get a grip on the basics through online tutorials and a little trial and error.
The fantastic thing about Pro tools is you can pretty much make it anything you want, with a colossal array third-party plugins that do anything from change the micro tuning of your audio to a simple unique reverb. The possibilities and additions really are endless. If you haven’t touched Pro Tools, there is a free trial available, but it does run quite expensive. Also, if you use Pro Tools religiously, be sure read on – it’s not the be all and end all!
An alternative to Pro Tools is Apple’s Logic Pro. As the name suggests, it is exclusive to Mac, so if you’re strictly into PCs, this won’t be for you. However, it is lauded for “musically” friendly functionality, great for precision cutting with intuitive keyboard shortcuts and a neat GUI. It doesn’t have some of the in-depth audio editing options that you’ll find in Pro Tools, but it certainly is cheaper.
I also highly recommend Ableton Live for bedroom production – it is nice and simple for getting recordings in, getting instruments set up, linking other programs, and working quickly. And if there is an industry standard for interfacing acoustic and virtual instruments with real-time manipulation options in a live setting, look no further than Ableton.
Using MIDI and Creating Unique Sounds
Propellor’s Reason is a DAW in itself, but has the added bonus of being a really powerful source of sounds, great for creating synths, sampling, and editing your audio. You can load your own sample files with ease, manipulate the shape and quality of a synthesiser’s waveform down to sine waves, and sequence your drums or sounds with immense creativity.
Visually you can move your effects and instruments into an animated digital rack to emulate a studio environment. Reason’s solid analogue feel is well suited for those learning a professional studio approach as well as getting that big studio feel in the bedroom. It may be one of the most difficult to learn because of the differences visually and functionally, but it is very rewarding in what is possible, and can be bridged for use in other programs like Ableton and Pro Tools.
DJ, EDM, Hip Hop
Formerly known as Fruity Loops (thanks Kellogg’s), FL Studio (Producer or Signature for recording capabilities) is cited as a fantastic ‘in-box’ method of composition for DJ, EDM, and Hip Hop artists. With super extensive automation options, and an intuitive piano roll, placing notes and painstakingly moving through samples has never been easier. It may not be best if you’re recording a lot of stuff, but any purely digital ‘in the box’ composers will find a plethora of options and creative tools to work with in FL Studio.
Ableton Live: it’s in the name! An alternative for FL Studio, Ableton is praised for use in electronic music, but flexible enough to be used for any genre. The company Ableton works with Novation to create amazing live tools and MIDI controllers such as the Launchpad and Ableton Push. These seamlessly integrate with Ableton Live to take your performance to the next level.
Unique to Ableton is the movement between session and live views – with the touch of a button you are transported from the sequential workspace to a sample-based trigger display. There is an effortless movement between the physical controls and the DAW, as they’ve been made and mapped with Ableton Live specifically in mind.
Film and Precision
Lastly, if you’re working with film, you may be inclined to reach for Pro Tools, but try Apple’s Logic Pro. Logic Pro syncs well with video, letting you work visually and through the clock to apply sound precisely.
Keyboard shortcuts for cutting and pasting audio, moving through tools, and applying effects, allow you to get what sound where you want very quickly; even if your source doesn’t meld perfectly with the visual, it will with a little know how and Logic Pro’s powerful tools. The inbuilt filtration and time based filters are perfect for creating and altering perceptions of sound for cinematic drama.
Learning all the DAWs in the world would be nonsensical, but having an understanding of a few and how they relate to your practice can make for an far more efficient workflow.
While Pro Tools is the industry standard and can be tailored to meet your needs, it isn’t always accessible. Competitive innovation in the DAW industry continues to create products that are ever more intuitive and tailored to fit into a musically creative workflow, so there’s never been a better time to learn what different options can do for you.